Summer Air Travel Is a Mess. This Is Why, and Here's What You Can Do About It

Delays and cancellations are out of control

Airlines Cancel Thousands Of Flights As Omicron Cases Surge
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If you've been to an airport at all this summer, you're probably well aware that air travel is something of a nightmare right now. Crowds fill security queues, departure boards are filled with cancellations, and frustrated passengers are just about everywhere. Suppose you make it to your final destination with nothing but a slight delay. In that case, you're probably one of the lucky ones—hundreds, if not thousands of travelers across North America and Europe are getting stranded daily. So what in the world is going on? Here's everything you need to know about the state of air travel this summer and how you can go about making the smoothest travel experience for yourself.

Why are so many flights getting delayed or canceled this summer?

It's a perfect storm of events that starts with, well, storms. Thunderstorms are a common reason flights are delayed during the spring and summer—and that's true every year, not just in 2022. But the more significant issue is that the post-pandemic demand for travel is soaring far higher and far faster than most airlines anticipated, and the airlines aren't prepared to handle the large crowds.

According to a Deloitte survey, six in 10 Americans plan to travel this summer, and more than half of Americans feel safe flying. As such, demand for air travel has quickly reached and, in some cases, surpassed pre-pandemic levels. But the air travel industry wasn't prepared for such a rapid rebound, and airlines that had reduced their staff during the pandemic are now understaffed.

"Airlines were facing an approaching pilot shortage pre-pandemic. And in 2020, thousands of pilots took early retirement as the airlines faced an unprecedented dive in demand," said Anthony Jackson, a Deloitte risk and financial advisory principal. "And it's not just pilots. Airlines need to staff up across service roles from baggage handlers to maintenance workers to gate agents."

Now back to the issues of those summer storms. Flight crews are subject to strict timing requirements—their shifts can't exceed a certain number of hours for safety reasons, so if a flight is delayed for weather reasons, the crew could "time out." Typically, there's a short delay as a replacement crew is brought in. But there aren't enough replacement crews out there, resulting in flights being canceled altogether.

Those delays and cancellations don't only affect one flight—they also affect subsequent flights on the same aircraft. Say a plane was scheduled to fly from New York to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Los Angeles. If that first flight is delayed long enough or canceled outright, the second flight may also be delayed or canceled.

Again, in regular times, airlines often had extra crew and planes on hand to fill any gaps caused by delays and cancellations. But they simply don't anymore. "Airlines' agility in responding to disruption is driven in large part by its workforce, so these staffing challenges end up affecting the experience of flying," said Jackson.

Are airlines at fault for the delays and cancellations?

In the big picture, yes, given their understaffing. (Though exceptions are certainly out of the airlines' control, such as plain-old weather delays.) But it's not a malicious situation. 

"It's easy to say airlines should have planned for this, but it's maybe not that simple. Consider the environment at the height of COVID-19 downturn: the industry had never faced anything like this and was desperate to stay alive," said pilot and air travel expert Patrick Smith of AskThePilot.com. "There was no way of predicting when, or to what extent, flyers would return."

Smith said that, in general, airlines anticipated a more gradual return to air travel. "When it came to aligning their fleets and staffing, they did what they calculated was the smartest thing to do. Some guessed better than others, and that's what it was to a big degree—guesswork. As flyers have returned en masse, the industry is scrambling to catch up," he said.

Air travel logistics are complicated to begin with, requiring managing many moving parts. So it comes as little surprise that everything has gone awry due to the unexpected circumstances confronting the travel industry these days.

What can the airlines do to fix the problem?

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes here. "Further investment in automation should be able to support areas like check-in and aircraft maintenance over time," said Jackson. "Some roles absolutely need to be refilled, and there is a lot of talk within travel about how companies can do a better job of helping their people build careers, and how they can communicate the opportunities that exist beyond the entry-level."

What airlines can—and very much are doing—is preemptively canceling flights to relieve the bottlenecks. That isn't great for the unlucky passengers booked on those flights, but it should help stabilize the schedule somewhat.

How can you make your air travel experience better right now? 

Book directly with the airline.

Avoid booking flights via third-party sites, even if the price is lower. The airlines might not help you if your flights are delayed or canceled—you'll likely be redirected back to your third-party company to solve your travel woes.

Choose the earliest flight of the day.

Delays and cancellations snowball throughout the day, so your best bet is to get on the first flight in the morning.

Give yourself extra time.

If you're traveling for an important event, give yourself a day or two buffer so that if your flights are delayed or canceled, you have time to figure out an alternative way to get to your event. On the same note, given all the delays, make sure you budget extra time for layovers—don't plan on any short 30-minute connections if you can avoid them.

Travel with a carry-on only.

Checked bags spell problems these days. If you check a bag, there's a decent chance it won't make it to your final destination at the same time you do, whether it's because delays caused your bag to miss a tight connection or because you've been rebooked onto different flights. And if you decide to cancel your flight and drive to your final destination instead (as some passengers have done), the airline likely won't be able to take the bag off the aircraft for you.

Book flexible fares.

"Travelers also should pay attention to what they purchase—airlines offer fares with differing levels of flexibility, and each ticket has rules for what a traveler is entitled to in the event of a cancellation or delay," said Jackson. "This is probably one of the reasons our survey indicates a large number of travelers are purchasing some kind of upgraded tickets—more than half of travelers who had their flights booked already told us they had purchased some kind of upgraded ticket versus the cheapest available fare."

Buy travel insurance.

Because airlines might not necessarily be required to reimburse you for expenses related to a delay or cancellation, it's a solid idea to purchase standalone travel insurance. Or, at the very least, make sure your travel is booked with a credit card with good travel insurance. That way, you can recoup many of your travel expenses if you're delayed or can't make it to your final destination. That often includes missed nights at hotels and pre-booked tours.

What are your rights if your flight gets delayed or canceled?

"With this being an almost universal experience for all travelers, whether domestic or international, it is important for passengers to know their rights and the laws they are protected under," said Rosa Garcia, a legal tactician at air passenger rights company AirHelp.

Garcia advises always to find out the reason for the delay or cancellation—that can affect what refunds, compensation, or reimbursement you might be able to receive from the airlines. Airlines set the rules for compensation in the United States, and many only consider compensation if the delay is their fault (e.g., a mechanical failure) and not if it's out of their hands (e.g., weather). Unfortunately, there is no federal standard for most instances of compensation eligibility, which means an airline might not compensate you at all.

Airlines are, however, required to offer a refund for flights delayed more than two hours if the passenger wants to cancel their ticket. They're also required to refund you for canceled flights. Another area for federally mandated compensation is in the case of involuntary denied boarding, otherwise known as involuntary bumping. If you're a ticketed passenger on an oversold flight and involuntarily rebooked on another flight, the airline owes you compensation. The amount varies on many factors, but it goes up to four times the value of the ticket.

Another exception is if you're flying to or from Europe—the European Union has legislation called EU261 regulating compensation for flight delays and cancellations. You do not need to be a citizen of the European Union to qualify for that compensation.

And finally, airlines are on the hook for delayed baggage. "If the airline loses your luggage in the U.S., travelers can claim up to $3,800 in compensation. It's crucial to hold onto your boarding pass and luggage receipt in case of any issues because this will come in handy if it's lost," said Garcia. "Let the airline know as soon as possible, fill out a Property Irregularity Report, request a bag fee rebate, and if you must replace any necessary items, file a claim with the airline so you can get reimbursed."

Compensation for delayed flights is a complicated topic, so it's a good idea to educate yourself about it long before your flight takes off. Start by reading the U.S. Department of Transportation's consumer guide to air travel, which covers the basics of passengers' rights, and read the fine print from your airline, too—that's where the specifics come into play.

Article Sources
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  1. Executive Flyer. "Do Flights Get Canceled Due to Thunderstorms?" February 7, 2022.

  2. Deloitte Insights. "Getting Back to Getaways: 2022 Deloitte Summer Travel Survey." May 24, 2022.

  3. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Flight Delays & Cancellations." Accessed June 27, 2022.

  4. U.S. Department of Transportation. "Flight Delays & Cancellations." Accessed June 27, 2022.

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